Jan. 20, 2013

A Fable

by Louise Gluck

Two women with
the same claim
came to the feet of
the wise king. Two women,
but only one baby.
The king knew
someone was lying.
What he said was
Let the child be
cut in half; that way
no one will go
empty-handed. He
drew his sword.
Then, of the two
women, one
renounced her share:
this was
the sign, the lesson.
you saw your mother
torn between two daughters:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself— she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn't bear
to divide the mother.

"A Fable" by Louise Glück, from Ararat. © Harper Collins. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Inauguration Day, the day the newly elected — or re-elected — president takes the oath of office. Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to take the oath of office on January 20 (1937). Previously, Inauguration Day had been March 4, but Congress decided it wasn't necessary to wait so long between the election and the inauguration.

Some inaugural firsts:

Thomas Jefferson claimed three firsts in 1801: He was the first to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C. He was the first — and only — president to walk to his inauguration. And his speech was the first to be reprinted in the newspaper. And in 1805, he set another precedent by hosting the first inaugural parade.

John F. Kennedy was the first president to invite a poet to read at his inaugural. Robert Frost wrote a poem called "Dedication" especially for the occasion. But the sun was so bright that the 86-year-old Frost couldn't read what he'd typed, so he recited "The Gift Outright," which he knew by heart, instead.

Lyndon Johnson was the first (and so far the only) president to be sworn in by a woman. She was Dallas judge Sarah T. Hughes, and she administered the oath after the assassination of President Kennedy. Johnson took the oath on November 22, 1963, crowded into Air Force One with 26 other people.

Bill Clinton was the first president whose inauguration was broadcast on the Internet, at the beginning of his second term in 1997.

And of course it was last Inauguration Day, in 2009, that Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States. He'll take that oath again today to kick off his second term.

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Robert Olen Butler (books by this author), born in Granite City, Illinois (1945). He won the Pulitzer Prize for short fiction in 1993 for his collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992).

Butler signed up to serve in the Vietnam War and was assigned to Army intelligence, and he spent a year learning Vietnamese. He was sent overseas in 1971, but was not sent to a combat zone. He lived in an old French hotel, and he would frequently go out in the middle of the night to talk to the locals in the alleys and doorways of Saigon. He also wrote a play while he was there. After he returned Stateside in 1972, he took a job as a writer and editor in New York, and while he rode the train into the city, he worked on novels. "Every word of my first four published novels was written on a legal pad, by hand, on my lap, on the Long Island Railroad as I commuted back and forth from Sea Cliff to Manhattan," he later said. The first novel he published was The Alleys of Eden (1981), the first in what would be a trilogy about Vietnam.

Butler's most recent book came out just last fall. It's The Hot Country (2012), and it's his first spy thriller.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Federico Fellini, born in Rimini, Italy (1920). When he was 12, he joined a traveling circus, and when he was 19, he joined a vaudeville troupe and traveled all over Italy with them. He became known as the "company poet," but he was also a good sketch writer, bit player, and scenery painter. Circuses and vaudeville often turn up in Fellini's films, appearing in La Strada (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), and The Clowns (1971).

He claimed all art was autobiographical, and said, "If I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me."

It's the birthday of comedian George Burns, born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City (1896). Young Nathan left school after fourth grade to become an entertainer. He met 18-year-old Gracie Allen in 1923. She had one blue eye and one green eye, and she was looking for a vaudeville partner. "I couldn't get a job," Burns said. "I'd worked with a dog, I'd worked with a seal. Why wouldn't I work with Gracie?" She played the straight man and people laughed more at her straight lines than they did at Burns' jokes. The audience fell in love with her, and so did Burns. He finally convinced her to marry him by threatening to break up the act if she said no. They were partners on and off the stage until her death in 1964.

Burns reinvented himself as a solo act after Allen's death. He also wrote books, including Living It Up: Or, They Still Love Me in Altoona! (1976), Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness: Buy Two Books and Call Me in the Morning (1984), and Gracie: A Love Story (1988). He died in 1996, not long after celebrating his 100th birthday. He was interred with Gracie, and their marker was changed to read "Gracie Allen and George Burns — Together Again." He insisted that she have top billing.

George Burns, who said, "Too bad that all the people that know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair."

It's the birthday of novelist Tami Hoag (books by this author), born Tami Mikkelson in Cresco, Iowa (1959). She grew up in small-town Harmony, Minnesota. There wasn't much to do, especially since she was much younger than the rest of her brothers and sisters, so she amused herself by making up stories. She started making money at it when she was 38, writing romance novels for Bantam Books. She wrote about 20 of these, and then she made the switch to thrillers. Her first of these, Night Sins (1988), was made into a television miniseries in 1997.

Her next book, The 9th Girl, is due out this June (2013).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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